Sep 252011

In 1226 the French King Louis VIII took over leadership of the crusade against the Cathars with the blessing of Pope Honorius III. His aim was less the extermination of Catharism than to add the province of the Languedoc to his kingdom. By 1230 he had overrun virtually the whole of the Count of Toulouse’s lands and compelled him to submit to the Treaty of Meaux which ceded protection of his territories to France. The Count himself, Raymond VII, was imprisoned for a time to ensure that he complied with the extremely humiliating terms forced on him.

However this didn’t succeed in exterminating Catharism but only drove it underground. As a consequence the next Pope, Gregory IX, set up the Inquisition in 1233 charged with hunting out and burning the heretics. For the next ten years this religious body systematically worked its way through the territories where the Cathars had flourished, spreading terror before it. Ever since that period the Inquisition has been thought of as the most horrendous and bloodthirsty of the Catholic Church’s weapons against heresy.

Nevertheless the excesses of the Inquisition raised great resentment and resistance among the local population and sympathy increased for the Cathars who were gradually driven back in their reduced numbers towards their unofficial headquarters of Montségur in the high Pyrenees. In fact the increased support for Raymond VII led him to rebel in 1240 against the French overlordship of his kingdom and for a period he won back some of the independence he had previously known. However he couldn’t hope to lead his weakened province successfully against the might of the French nation and he accepted final defeat in late 1242.

With the last hurdle to their complete domination removed, the crusaders finally felt strong enough to attack the last Cathar stronghold of Montségur and this was besieged in May 1243. You will see from the photo that the castle occupies a spectacular site on top of a rocky outcrop 3,500 feet above sea level with deep valleys on three sides and approached by an easily defended ridge on the fourth side. Around the area are clustered peaks up to 10,000 feet high, capped by snow for much of the year. The castle can be visited and the walk up is quite challenging.

It is not therefore surprising that only about 200 Cathars and their supporting men at arms were able to hold off several thousand besieging soldiers for nearly a year. This was partly because the difficult terrain made it almost impossible to completely surround every track leading up to the castle and the local population were sympathetic to the Cathar cause, so they were able to receive small quantities of supplies and probably to release bulky items of treasure and families who might have otherwise been at risk.

Next week I will describe the final wiping out of the Cathars. Once again, I am indebted to Zoe Oldenbourg’s Massacre at Montségur for a lot of the above information although the conclusions I have drawn from it are my own.


Sep 182011

In the early thirteenth century the Languedoc was ruled by the Count of Toulouse, Raymond VII. Although he was less than a king and was theoretically vassal to the King of France, Raymond was effectively independent, being brother-in-law to the Kings of England and Aragon in Northern Spain.

It was the tolerant Raymond who had allowed the Cathar heresy to flourish in his territories which spread across the whole of the south of modern France and into Provence. So it was against him that the Albigensian Crusade was launched by Pope Innocent III in 1209 – the only crusade against a theoretically Christian country.

The papacy did not have its own armies so they had to recruit from among the princes of Western Europe to assemble a force to invade the Languedoc. This was not difficult since the crusade was in effect a licence to invade the rich lands of Southern France and carry off whatever plunder they could grab.

The Pope tried to induce the French king, then Philllip II, to lead the crusade but he refused to attack his cousin. So a variety of bishops and nobles fought together and they had initial success in seizing Béziers and Carcassonne (see photo). However, when they encountered serious resistance, the army began to break up and it was decided that an overall leader was needed. The man selected was Simon de Montfort.

Simon was a giant of a figure in all ways and for the next ten years he set about systematically reducing the whole of the Languedoc and bringing it under his control. City after city was captured and the Cathar heretics in each one were burned at the stake before he moved on to the next. However the campaign was brought to an end when they laid siege to the capital city of Toulouse and Simon was killed in 1218.

His death lifted the siege and the Count of Toulouse retook much of his territory which he had lost during de Montfort’s campaigns. For a while the church’s battle to wipe out Catharism seemed to have been lost. However there was now a new Pope, Honorius III, and more importantly a new French king, Louis VIII.

Honorius was so worried about losing religious control of a substantial part of the Christian world that he approached Louis to take over leadership of the crusade. The king, for his part, wanted to take the Languedoc into the French kingdom and he agreed to lead the crusade provided that he was awarded all of the lands which he conquered. He also required the rich Church to pay him a substantial sum of money each year to keep his treasury in credit. From that moment the fate of the Cathars was sealed.

I will tell you about the end of the crusade next week.


Once again, I am indebted to Zoe Oldenbourg’s Massacre at Montségur for much of the above information. The conclusions I have drawn are my own.


Sep 112011

This question is not easily answered because so few documents remain. It is known that they had certain classes of membership. Their leading adherents were called parfaits or perfecti being close to unblemished members. We know they had certain festivals, one of them being close to the Christian Easter. However little is known of their beliefs.

The Church of Rome regarded Catharism as a heresy – that is a breakaway from orthodox Christianity. But many say it was separate religion based on the two essentials of good and evil – a dualism rather than a belief in a single omnipotent god.

Cathars believed that this world was created by Satan – not by God. Everything on earth was the creation of the Devil, including man. Jesus Christ was created by God in his own image and sent into the impure world to spread his message and was defiled by it. They believed that, in the most cunning way possible, Satan destroyed Jesus’ work by creating the Church of Rome to falsify his message. The true Christian Church  and the repository of the Holy Spirit was that of the Cathars.

The Church of Rome was known to them as The Great Beast. Her sacraments were the snares of the Devil. The cross should not be venerated but should inspire horror, being the instrument of Jesus’ humiliation. People who bowed to religious relics were adoring mere matter, which was the creation of the Devil.

These are incomplete theories about Catharism since nearly all their records are believed to have been destroyed by the Church of Rome after the movement was massacred at the end of the Albigensian Crusade and only the ‘errors’ of the heresy were publicised to justify its subjugation.

There is also a theory that some of the remaining Cathar documents may be stored in the Tower of the Winds in the Vatican.

Will this ever be proved or disproved? Will anybody ever know about the true Secrets of the Cathars?

I am indebted to Zoe Oldenbourg’s Massacre at Montségur for much of the above information. The conclusions I have drawn are my own.